Part 1 “Russian Justice”
A judge at Moscow’s Tverskoi District Court stopped the trial of Sergei Magnitsky (above) yesterday – but not because the defendant was dead. Magnitsky’s demise was of no concern to the judge. It did not bother him in the slightest. The court merely postponed proceedings until 4 March when the world will see something rarely seen since the Middle Ages: a prosecutor arraigning a corpse.
The Putin regime – that mixture of autocracy and gangsterism – is desperate to discredit the late Mr Magnitsky and his employer, Bill Browder of Hermitage Capital. If you don’t know the story, I’ll explain why.
Browder exposed corruption in Russian companies. The Russian authorities did not approve. Interior Ministry police raided Hermitage’s offices after Browder and most of his employees had fled the country.
Magnitsky stayed and claimed that the Interior Ministry police had stolen the seals to its Russian subsidiaries and passed them to a crime gang. The gang re-registered the companies and claimed to be Hermitage’s rightful owners. They told the Russian authorities they owed Hermitage a tax rebate. Within a day, corrupt officials handed over £143m of public money.
Magnitsky complained to the Russian equivalent of the FBI. Russia being the way it is, the Interior Ministry arrested him for speaking out. The state held him for a year in wretched prisons. In June 2009, Magnitsky developed pancreatitis and cholecystitis. The prison authorities denied him treatment. They probably tortured him, too. When civilian doctors finally came to see him on the day of his death, the guards would not let them into his cell for an hour. The doctors found his body lying in a pool of urine. He died rather than retract his testimony.
Needless to add his murder does not concern the Russian authorities. Rather Bill Browder’s campaign for justice for his dead friend has enraged and frightened them. Browder has convinced the US and EU countries to pass “Magnitsky laws” that freeze the foreign assets of those involved in Russia’s biggest tax fraud.
Browder is hitting the Russian elite where it hurts. He is depriving bureaucrats, criminals and politicians (the boundaries are porous) of the ability to enjoy their loot in the boutiques and spa resorts of the West.
Russia is desperate to discredit the campaign, so the state has put Browder on trial in absentia and placed the ghost of Magnitsky beside him in the dock. It charges them with committing the very fraud they exposed.
Magnitsky will not be able to understand the proceedings or speak in his defence, for reasons which should be obvious. As a spokesman for Hermitage said, the trial is a desecration. ‘The only place where a notice to Sergei Magnitsky can be delivered is to his grave at the Preobrazhenskoye cemetery, and any written confirmation would need to be obtained from his corpse. There is a special place in hell for the people organizing this.’ Magnitsky’s mother’s has begged Russian lawyers not to appear, but the court has found lawyers willing to participate in a show trial of a murdered member of their own profession in return for money and a step up the career ladder.
I would reach for the obvious comparison with Stalin and Vyshinsky. But to be fair to the men who presided over some of the greatest crimes in human history, they never prosecuted cadavers.
Russian lawyers and judges seem uniquely disgraceful but let us not rush to judgement just yet.
Magnitsky’s ghost will also be on trial at the High Court in London. In his testimony, he claimed that Major Pavel Karpov of the Russian Interior Ministry (pictured) was one of the officers involved in the con.
Karpov has now issued a writ for libel against Browder and Hermitage for repeating the allegation. He has chosen his destination well. London, is the ‘town called sue’, the world’s favourite stopover for libel tourists with a still unreformed libel law that places heavy burdens on the defence. If an English libel judge finds in his favour, Russia could use the ruling alongside the trial of the corpse to discredit the global campaign against its kleptocrats.
For a retired policeman, who earned £300 a month when he was working as a cop, Karpov can afford lavish legal representation. He has hired Olswang, a corporate law firm, and Andrew Caldecott a pricey QC. For a while, he also paid for the services of PHA, Phil Hall’s PR company. (Hall has since dropped Karpov, but won’t say why.)
I should declare an interest and say that his solicitor is Geraldine Proudler, who is on the board of the Scott Trust, which is meant to protect my liberal journalistic values and the liberal values of all my colleagues at the Guardian and Observer. (Values that the Russian oligarchy uses every means to destroy, up to and including the murder of journalists.)
How can Karpov afford these expensive “professionals” if he is the honest and unfairly maligned police officer he claims to be?
According to the defence Bill Browdler filed at the High Court, the services of London’s well-groomed lawyers are not all Mr Karpov can afford.
“Until recently the Claimant [Karpov] was registered as living at Balaklavsky Prospect with his grandmother and his mother in a modest apartment of 54 square metres
“In spite of the relatively modest level of salary paid to the Claimant at all material times under the terms of his employment by the Ministry of the Interior, he has acquired very substantial assets and enjoyed an upmarket lifestyle which it would be impossible for him to have earned legitimately through his official position.
“Moreover, the Claimant’s mother had.. [a] pension [of] less than $3,200 per annum. Notwithstanding this, she also acquired very substantial assets in her name which it is to be inferred were the product of the Claimant’s illicit activities”
The defence list the land Karpov and his mother have bought, the “new build luxury apartment in the prestigious Shuvalovsky development,” the Mercedes Benz (cost $72,601), the 9 other vehicles, the 47 trips to 17 different countries he has enjoyed, and his visits to ‘Moscow’s finest restaurants and nightclubs’.
Despite all of his conspicuous consumption, the defence continues, Karpov still has the money left over to finance these ‘libel proceedings, and has provided security for costs in the sum at this stage of £100,000.’
Proudler assured me that Karpov was a victim of smears. Although she would not reveal the source of his wealth, she said it was not from corruption.
She had better be right. Because if she is not it will mean that England’s legal profession will have sunk lower than even I imagined possible.